As the sun sets on the first virtual edition of Sundance London ALT catches up with the award-winning Joslyn Rose Lyons – whose short film LOOKING GLASS, featuring the rapper Jallal, was screened at the festival. LOOKING GLASS has been picking up awards at a number of digital film festivals this summer.
Joslyn has a relentless legacy of work in hip hop, directing music videos and music-related content and documentaries. The director producer has string of credits including Tale of the Tape (2020), Same Energy (2018), BET Experience: Celebrity Basketball Game (2017), Def Poetry (2002), Soundz of Spirit (2003), Rap City (2000), Mali Music: Beautiful (2014), The Message TV Mini Series (2014. Lyons has contributed to documentaries, films and television shows for HBO, MTV, BET, VH1, Discovery, PBS, MSNBC, Warner Bros., and Oprah Winfrey Network. She made her documentary directorial debut with ‘Soundz of Spirit’ premiering the film at the HBO Urbanworld Film Festival.
Right now, is the beginning of a new slate of projects for the Berkeley, California born Director/Producer. Watch this space.
What is the concept/story behind Looking Glass, was this your first time at Sundance?
‘Looking Glass’ stars Los Angeles based rapper/actor #Jallal, and features an ensemble cast of amazing friends and artists from the Bay including DJ Umami, Ryan Nicole-Peters, Tierney Highfill, and DJ Ambush, and embraces the struggle to overcome complacency, while visually embodying the spirit of Oakland’s creative community. At the time of conceptualizing this piece, I had just finished reading a book called ‘The Big Leap’ which explores the concept of taking that courageous leap from your ‘excellence zone’ to your ‘genius zone’ so this was a concept also present when I wrote the short. I am working on a script for a narrative feature with similar themes, so this was in some ways a proof of concept. I have always been fascinated by the idea of time. LOOKING GLASS was in some ways my love letter to time.
I began working with Sundance Collab last year on a script that I am writing for my first narrative feature. The program they are running is amazing. So I was honoured when I heard from them that their artist in resident, Trey Ellis (HBO Tuskegee Airmen, True Justice) had seen my short film Looking Glass online, and Sundance contacted me to invite me to screen the film as part of their Sundance London Virtual Film Festival event.
With the world all on some sort of lockdown what was your experience of the digital festival?
It was inspiring being able to connect with everyone on Zoom for the Sundance London event. I enjoyed getting to watch others watch my short film, and hear their feedback live in real time. As a filmmaker, we don’t always get to see an audience up close after showing our work. I appreciated the connections that this virtual event provided us.
What is it like working with Jallal, how did that collaboration come about?
I met Jallal while attending an art opening at the MOMA, the seeds were planted for us to create something together. When we got a chance to film Looking Glass at Bardo, a 1930’s inspired supper club in Oakland, we invited many Oakland based artists and friends to appear in the short film. The concept of taking that leap from your ‘excellence zone’ to your ‘genius zone’ is something that Jallal naturally exudes as an artist. Each character in Looking Glass represented a different part of the creative journey (doubt, fear, patience, time). I wrote the narration with the idea that it would be read like poetry, to evoke a feeling, spark a thought. Jallal brought that depth, and pulled the words off the page, he brought the words to life.
When did you first get into filmmaking did you train?
I studied film production and film theory at CCA (California College of the Arts) and UC Berkeley. During my studies, I interned at an Emmy Award winning production company, and that’s where I started making my first documentary feature Soundz of Spirit, which eventually premiered at HBO Urbanworld Film Festival in NY and won Best Music Doc at the New York International Film Festival.
What made you go down the music/documentary video route and what have been some of your favourite pieces of work?
I have a passion for music, and I grew up in the Bay Area, so music was just part of my community. My mom is an artist, so I have always been naturally just drawn to exploring the creative process. I’m inspired by the creative journey and watching it unfold, so the verité aspect of documentary was a good medium/format for me to start out in because of this.
One of my favourites is “Truth to Power. I’m the impact producer on this documentary, it comes out later this year. It’s About the courageous voice of Rep. Barbara Lee, and features powerful interviews with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Van Jones, Danny Glover, Corey Booker, and Alice Walker. Another is Same Energy, I created this show with Matt Barnes and Uninterrupted (LeBron James digital Platform), it featured Marshawn Lynch and 2Chainz and explored in-depth conversations about the mental, physical, and spiritual strength.
You worked on Talib Kweli: Cold Rain and The Soul Train Awards: were you a fan of either growing up and how do you compare the experiences of both of working on live TV and music videos from a director/producer’s view?
I was definitely a fan. I remember when Kweli dropped “Just to Get By” that was the anthem. It was an honour directing videos for him. Working for BET as well. When I directed the First Grammy Showcase for Music Matters (BET) at CAA (Creative Artists Agency), the live aspect of directing/producing a live showcase with a live audience, was definitely different for me. When directing music videos, as a director/producer, I find more creative vision in scripted spaces. I am more grounded in the creative process of scripting, when it comes to just the writing, storyboarding etc. of that format.
Whose work (directors) do you admire?
I admire Ava DuVernay. She is a superhero. Such a powerhouse. Her work is so impressive. She inspires me. Spike Lee. I actually got to have dinner with him and his composer Terrance Blanchard at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York, after working on a production for HBO with him. I remember at the dinner he was scribbling notes on a napkin. I realized then that he never turns it off. His film ‘Do the Right Thing’ is one of the sparks that ignited this journey in cinema for me. I admire Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the use of magical realism in his film Amelie, has always been part of how I relate to storytelling. I had a chance once to ask him what would be the one piece of advice for filmmakers, and he said “use everything in your toolbox”
Where do you call home?
I have always felt most at home on the West Coast.
What has lockdown been like for you professionally with LA being one of the worst hit areas by Covid?
I’ve been working with my producers on the polishing phase of a script for my first feature film. It’s actually been quite a creative and focused time for this process. It’s also been a time of solitude. My favourite author Paulo Coehlo (The Alchemist) said this about Solitude it may be too long to share it, but it’s such a good quote: “Without solitude, Love will not stay long by your side. Because Love needs to rest, so that it can journey through the heavens and reveal itself in other forms. Without solitude, no plant or animal can survive, no soil can remain productive, no child can learn about life, no artist can create, no work can grow and be transformed. Solitude is not the absence of Love, but its complement. Solitude is not the absence of company, but the moment when our soul is free to speak to us and help us decide what to do with our life. Therefore, blessed are those who do not fear solitude, who are not afraid of their own company, who are not always desperately looking for something to do, something to amuse themselves with, something to judge. If you are never alone, you cannot know yourself. And if you do not know yourself, you will begin to fear the void.”